By now we’ve all seen, heard about, and read about the horrific mass murders that the Russians undertook in Bucha. There is no need for Ye Olde Blogge to weigh in with invective about how appalling and disgusting the atrocities were. Too many others have documented it all too well and it is way to widely reported in the legacy media, social media, professional alternative media, and on blogs and other amateur reporting platforms for it to be worthwhile adding my two cents that will be about the same as everyone else’s. The contribution that this blog can make is applying the lessons from the work of Paul Slovic and Robert Lifton on psychic numbing to those human rights abuses.
Even if you don’t realize it, you are familiar with the phenomenon of psychic numbing. Hell, even Stalin was familiar with it when he uttered his infamous line, no doubt inspired by his induced genocidal famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor, One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
This is the way it works-1: When confronted with large-scale suffering, we tune out. When witnessing the suffering of one, our heart-strings are tugged, as the number of suffering increases, we just completely unravel our hearts with all that tugging.
This is the way it works-2: Slovic’s basic study looked at the amount of money that people were willing to donate to support impoverished and suffering children under three conditions: (1) a five year-old girl, (2) a nine year-old boy, and (3) both of the children together. Donations were lowest from those who were presented with both children. What? Why?
When we see one person suffering, our empathy is engaged, but when we see two people suffering, we do not experience twice the empathy. In fact, we may experience less empathy. As Stalin observed, a million people suffering and dying just becomes a morass of immorality that we can’t do anything about. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case, but obviously the relationship between one person suffering and ten people suffering is not linear, meaning that our concern for ten is not ten times our concern for one. And, it certainly isn’t exponential. We are not super more concerned when it is a million people suffering.
In fact, it is just the opposite. Once the number of people suffering reaches two, our level of concern levels off, and it never really climbs after that. If that number gets to be large, our level of concern begins to diminish in something affectionately dubbed, compassion collapse.
A Flattened Curve
The way it works-3: We might could make a donation that could help one child, but we aren’t about to double that donation to help two children. And, we sure as shit aren’t going to multiply it by a million to help the starving masses. It is not only beyond or ken, it is beyond our means.
This finding is inline with the behavioral economics finding that when we encounter a problem to solve, we make an unconscious calculation on how difficult it will be for us. If it is too easy, we might not try, or we might try and give up once we become bored. If it is too hard, we probably won’t try or give up easily. We only really apply ourselves when we feel that there is a chance of solving the puzzle. Applied to the contribution problem, it is as if we think that as an individual, I can give enough money to help one person, but more than that starts to sound impossible.
Lifton defines psychic numbing as the response people have to death anxiety in which they emotionally withdraw in order to manage their anxiety. It is a type of denial. It is a way of protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed by tragedy that we cannot do anything about.
Psychic Numbing, Applied
The Bucha Massacre
Applying this idea to the senseless slaughter of civilians in Bucha, you might think that we’d be overwhelmed by the news and give in to psychic numbing. However, the massacre in Bucha is different. We saw pictures of individuals. They were presented as individuals in the media. They were called fathers, husbands, mothers, wives, children. We identified with them. In addition, it was not presented as three hundred killed in Bucha, but as an outrage because they were systematically taken from their homes during the retreat, some of them bound, and shot excecution-style in the back of the head. Everyone of us who scrolled past those stories on our social media feeds, read the headlines, or saw the videos felt the same sense of gross unfairness. We could see ourselves in those people. That could’ve been us.
However, as time passes and the initial outrage and shock wears off, we will begin to think of it more and more as three hundred people killed. They will become just another number in the endless march of the dead, displaced, and destroyed. It will, then, contribute to the psychic numbing that we are already feeling about the war, the one million real live dead Americans from #COVID19 or the impossibly high gas prices or the inflation or fear of a world without access to safe and legal reproductive health options.
As the problems that the US faces mount ever higher — the arbitrary and unnecessary problems that are being created by the GQP as they obstruct the Biden administration’s effective solutions to all of our problems — we feel ourselves being increasingly overwhelmed by vague fears of racism, sexism, immigrants, and socialism. The vaguer the threat, the more likely you are to feel that you can do nothing about it. The more helpless you feel in the face of it. The more helpless you feel, the more likely you are to feel overwhelmed.
To protect yourself from that sense of being drowned in difficulties and distress, you’ll begin to feel numb. It doesn’t help that the media portrays the upcoming elections as a foregone conclusion of a GQP landslide because it doesn’t even seem like voting could help us.
It is the reason so many people shrug and say they’re done with #COVID19, for example. It may be the reason many people won’t vote in the midterms. It may be the reason that people aren’t donating as much money to Ukrainians, survivors of wildfires, floods, blizzards, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events.
It can also be the reason some people have such extreme and visceral reactions to seeing others wearing masks or not wearing masks or protesting police violence or abortion or the outrageous support that Tucker Carlson is offering Putin’s crimes against humanity machine.
Recovering from Psychic Numbing
Like snails and turtles, when we feel threatened, we pull within our protective shells and hope that the trouble passes us by. In this sense, it can be helpful. We really cannot do a very good job responding if we’re overwhelmed. Checking out while we get our cognitive, emotional, and physical resources organized will help us do a much better job of coping when we’re ready to.
When you’re operating from a place of fear and confusion, you literally cannot think. Your prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that thinks rationally — is chemically detached and less able to direct your actions. If you realize that you’re overwhelmed and going psychically numb, here’s what you do:
- PRUNE: Take stock of the issues that are stressing you out. Do you really need to be engaged with all of them? Cut back on the ones that you don’t absolutely have to do something about right now.
- HIT THE BRAKES: You don’t have to go go go all of the time. You can watch some TV or a movie, read a good book, go for a walk, go camping. The world and all of its problems will still be there when you get back.
- FOCUS: Our lives are filled with pleasures, albeit most of them small. Enjoy the beauty of the world around you. When you appreciate the beauty of the world, you live in a more beautiful world. When you eat, focus on each bite of food. When you’re walking the dogs, focus on how much they love their walks and their smells. Watch the sunset. Look at how amazing an insect is. Marvel at a bird in flight. Let your mind appreciate the symmetry of a leaf.
- GO CAMPING: Rest. Enjoy the great outdoors. Nothing restores like some time in nature. You don’t have to sleep in a tent on the ground, but get out and relax in as natural a setting as you can tolerate.
- KINDNESS: Do something for someone else. I’m not talking donate money. Open the door for someone. Smile at someone looking gloom. Do some random act of kindness. Nothing cuts through stress like really helping someone in need. You know, like leaving a sign of life on a blog post by commenting, liking or rating it, sharing it on social media, or following the blog.
Categories: Mental Health